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So much to choose from among UFAs

by Larry Wigge / Vancouver Canucks
It was All-Star weekend in Montreal, where hockey always is on the lips of Canadiens fans and the main topic of conversation -- even among players.

And here's a little anecdote that caught my attention in talking to three or four players while I was in Montreal: "There were three players sitting at a table in their coffee shop. One of the YoungStars wonders, 'What do you think is going to happen? You know ... with the trading deadline coming up?'"

The veteran at the table said, "This, my friend, is where you are going to hear trade rumors involving names that might really surprise you -- including a lot of players here in this room."

That said, the YoungStar looked around. Meanwhile, the veteran pointed to Boston goaltender Tim Thomas, St. Louis forward Keith Tkachuk, Anaheim defenseman Scott Niedermayer, Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom and Montreal forward Alex Kovalev.

The YoungStar said, "He told me, 'I'm not saying they are going to be traded, but each one of those guys can become unrestricted free agents in July -- and if there is any doubt that their teams can re-sign them, they could be dealt.'"

Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg was one of the biggest names on that potential unrestricted free-agent list before he agreed to terms on a new 12-year deal. But there are plenty of potential UFAs left.

The March 4 NHL trade deadline is kind of like a crossroads of life in the present -- with teams looking to get better for a playoff run -- and future -- with other teams trying to grow with young players and draft choices to perhaps be in that position next season.

Even if teams are nudged right up against the $56.7-million salary cap, contenders usually can find some creative ways to make a deal they think will make them stronger for the stretch run and in the playoffs.

Last season, each of the teams in last season's conference semifinals -- Detroit (Brad Stuart), Colorado (Adam Foote, Ruslan Salei), Dallas (Brad Richards), San Jose (Brian Campbell, Jody Shelley, Brian Boucher), Philadelphia (Vinny Prospal), Montreal (traded Cristobal Huet to give the No. 1 goaltending job to Carey Price), Pittsburgh (Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, Hal Gill) and New York Rangers (Fredrik Sjostrom, Christian Backman) -- made a deal before the Feb. 28 deadline.

"Cap and team chemistry are the primary concerns a general manager faces when he looks to make a deal before the deadline," said Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.

"It's too early to figure out exactly who the sellers are going to be before the deadline," said Blues GM Larry Pleau. "We always know there are buyers."
The easiest way to determine sellers is take a look at the standings and see who's below the playoff cutoff line. The New York Islanders fit that seller category, being 20 points out of a playoff position. Next were Atlanta and Ottawa, 12 points back, followed by Toronto, Tampa Bay and St. Louis, each nine points out of the playoffs.

"In this business, you know what you want," said Sharks GM Doug Wilson. "But trying to acquire players to fill your needs doesn't always happen in the time frame you want or at the price you want to pay. But the bottom line is you have to be active. You can't stand still. You have to be proactive. You have to show the players in your locker room that you're trying to give them everything they need to be the best they can be. I think you owe them that."

In recent weeks, there have been rumors about star players like Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier and Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger being traded. The rumors about Minnesota's Marian Gaborik started early, although the potential free-agent-to-be now is injured and unlikely to be dealt. You can forget about the rumblings of Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk being traded a year before his contract expires with the Thrashers, but there is good reason to expect Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle to waive his no-trade clause.

So that brings us back to the potential unrestricted free-agent list and who might be available. For those still unconvinced about where most of these trades will come from, here is a list of UFAs already dealt this season -- Daryl Sydor went from Pittsburgh to Dallas for Philippe Boucher; Brad May went from Anaheim to Toronto; Jason LaBarbera went from Los Angeles to Vancouver; Jason Williams went from Atlanta to Columbus for Clay Wilson; Dany Sabourin went from Pittsburgh to Edmonton. Florida defenseman Cory Murphy went on waivers to Tampa Bay, and Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber, also a potential UFA, likely will wind up in another NHL city soon.

My YoungStar friend laughed when I asked him to play GM for the moment. He said, "Maybe it's like sitting in that coffee shop looking at the menu. Do you pick from Column A, Column B, or C or D? That's too tough for me to say."

OK, pal. Here's the potential unrestricted free agent menu for you to peruse:

Column A (the appetizers, finger foods)

The hot wing scorers -- Buffalo's Maxim Afinogenov and Ales Kotalik; Calgary's Michael Cammalleri and David Moss; Chicago's Martin Havlat; Dallas' Jere Lehtinen, Joel Lundqvist and Mark Parrish; Detroit's Mikael Samuelsson; Minnesota's Marian Gaborik (injured); Montreal's Alex Kovalev and Alex Tanguay; Nashville's Steve Sullivan; New Jersey's Brian Gionta; Pittsburgh's Petr Sykora, Ruslan Fedotenko and Miroslav Satan; Tampa Bay's Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts; Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski; Vancouver's Daniel Sedin.

The salad/fajita/chili energy players -- Anaheim's Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer, Todd Marchant and Travis Moen; Boston's P.J. Axelsson; Colorado's Ben Guite and Ian Laperriere; Florida's Radek Dvorak; Los Angeles' Derek Armstrong and Kyle Calder; Minnesota's Stephane Veilleux; Montreal's Mathieu Dandenault and Tom Kostopoulos; Nashville's Radek Bonk and Vernon Fiddler; the Rangers' Blair Betts; Ottawa's Dean McAmmond and Chris Neil; San Jose's Mike Grier; St. Louis' Dan Hinote; Toronto's Dominic Moore and Jeremy Williams; Vancouver's Alex Burrows.

The shakes/protein-filled beverages power-forward section -- Calgary's Todd Bertuzzi; Detroit's Marian Hossa and Johan Franzen; Edmonton's Erik Cole; New Jersey's Mike Rupp; the Islanders' Bill Guerin; Philadelphia's Mike Knuble; St. Louis' Keith Tkachuk and Brad Winchester; Vancouver's Taylor Pyatt; Washington's Viktor Kozlov.

The sandwiches with something good in the middle -- Anaheim's Brendan Morrison; Atlanta's Marty Reasoner; Buffalo's Tim Connolly; Colorado's Joe Sakic; Columbus' Manny Malhotra and Michael Peca; Montreal's Saku Koivu and Robert Lang; New Jersey's John Madden; the Islanders' Mike Comrie, Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger (injured); Phoenix's Steven Reinprecht; St. Louis' Andy McDonald; Toronto's Nik Antropov; Vancouver's Henrik Sedin; Washington's Sergei Fedorov.

Column B (main entrees: steaks, fish, chicken, pastas)

The meat and potato defensemen -- Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin (injured) and Kent Huskins; Atlanta's Mathieu Schneider and Niclas Havelid; Boston's Shane Hnidy; Buffalo's Jaroslav Spacek; Calgary's Adrian Aucoin; Carolina's Dennis Seidenberg; Colorado's Jordan Leopold; Columbus' Christian Backman; Dallas' Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov; Florida's Jay Bouwmeester and Nick Boynton; Los Angeles' Sean O'Donnell; Minnesota's Marc-Andre Bergeron, Eric Reitz and Martin Skoula; Montreal's Mike Komisarek; Nashville's Greg de Vries, Ville Koistinen and Greg Zanon; New Jersey's Johnny Oduya; the Rangers' Dmitri Kalinin and Paul Mara; Ottawa's Filip Kuba; Philadelphia's Andrew Alberts; Phoenix's Derek Morris; Pittsburgh's Philippe Boucher, Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi; San Jose's Rob Blake and Kyle McLaren; Vancouver's Mattias Ohlund.

Column C (drinks)

Stirred yet not explosive goaltenders -- Boston's Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez; Chicago's Nikolai Khabibulin; Colorado's Andrew Raycroft; Detroit's Ty Conklin; Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson; Los Angeles' Erik Ersberg; Minnesota's Nicklas Backstrom; New Jersey's Scott Clemmensen and Kevin Weekes; Ottawa's Martin Gerber; Philadelphia's Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki; Phoenix's Mikael Tellqvist; San Jose's Brian Boucher; St. Louis' Manny Legace; Washington's Brent Johnson.

Column D (specials)

Players who rumors say are most likely to change teams by the deadline -- Mike Comrie; Nik Antropov; Brendan Morrison; Mathieu Schneider; Maxim Afinogenov; Greg de Vries; Kyle McLaren; Niclas Havelid; Michael Peca; Jay Bouwmeester; Manny Legace; Mark Recchi; Gary Roberts.

Bon appetit!

Then and now -- Seeing Joe Thornton at the All-Star Game and seeing San Jose atop the Western Conference, and Boston, which traded Thornton in November 2005, atop the East, underscores the job both teams have done since that blockbuster deal.

The Sharks trail only Detroit in regular-season winning percentage since the trade, and have averaged more goals (3.16) than everyone except the Red Wings, Sabres and Senators since the deal.

"I'm not going to get ahead of myself here and predict who is where at the end of this season," Thornton said of a potential San Jose-Boston match in the Stanley Cup Final. "But it sure would be neat to meet in the finals."

The Sharks have built on Thornton as a cornerstone, along with Patrick Marleau; the pair just happened to go 1-2 in the 1997 Entry Draft. Meanwhile, Boston GM Peter Chiarelli has done a masterful job since coming from Ottawa, first signing free agents Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. He reshaped an old, immobile defense, starting with Chara and acquiring Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward, Dennis Wideman and Shane Hnidy in trades, along with forward Chuck Kobasew, and brought in goaltender Manny Fernandez to share time with holdover Tim Thomas. But drafting and bringing along prospects like Phil Kessel, David Krejci and Milan Lucic was the biggest key to Boston's return to glory.

Living an Elite life -- Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg joked on the eve of his first Stanley Cup Final last June that what's next for him might be to win a championship in the Swedish Elite League. Now that he's re-signed with the Red Wings for 12 years, he'll have to settle for some more Cups, eh?

Other Red Wings players signed through at least 2012 include forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Dan Cleary and Valtteri Filppula, and defensemen Nick Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski and Brad Stuart.

A comfortable hat size -- Michael Cammalleri didn't score in his first three games in January, but he has 11 goals in seven games since to give him 25 for the season -- just nine short of his career-high of 34 set in 2006-07.

Cammalleri's father, Leo, never said there was a goal too high for him to reach when he was younger. Size? It's never been a problem for the diminutive Cammalleri, who said, "I'll never forget my dad telling me, 'It's not basketball, where the rim is 10 feet high. It’s hockey, and the puck is on the ice.'"

Two of Cammalleri's three goals Jan. 28 against the Sabres came in the third period as the Flames continued to score goals when they count -- giving them at least one third-period goal in each of their last 14 games. It's the Flames' longest such streak since 1992, when they scored goals in the third period in 17 consecutive games (Oct. 31-Dec. 7).

Making the Oilers cry uncle -- During the 2004 Entry Draft, the Edmonton Oilers wanted to choose University of North Dakota forward Drew Stafford at No. 14. Buffalo beat them to him, picking him one spot earlier. On Jan. 27, Stafford played his first game in Edmonton, where his uncle, Barrie, is the team's long-time equipment manager.

It was a game the Oilers won't soon forget. Stafford scored 10 seconds into the contest and then added two more goals in the third period to boost Buffalo to a 10-2 victory.

Said Stafford: "This one was special for me. It was my first time here playing in front of my uncle, seeing me live. Growing up and hanging out with him and that team, it was pretty special, pretty unique."
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